Driver: San Francisco – the ole ‘videogame hero in a coma’ trick

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By Neil Merrett

Driver: San Francisco, released on Playstation 3 in 2011, published by Ubisoft

In an era when it wasn’t a billion pound videogame platform that functions as an sprawling open world simulation that is practically a genre of its own, the Grand Theft Auto series had competition from a number of other game series.

There was the cross platform True Crime: Streets of LA, as well as spin-offs of The Simpsons and The Godfather movies that also tried to ape the appeal of hopping into cars and causing chaos as a bonafide criminal or ambitious chauffeur.

Before Grand Theft Auto moved, with huge success, into offering 3D worlds, as opposed to the top-down 2D felony where the series began, it was the game Driver that during the PS1 era was the most innovative crime-em-up with regards to building more life-like worlds.

Yet in the subsequent years the Grand Theft Auto series evolved to explore and flesh out the world outside of its vehicles, allowing players to embrace a world of in-game music, fashion and diverse nightlife.  Meanwhile, a third much touted Driver title was arguably the beginning of dwindling fortunes for the series – as forensically detailed by Guru Larry in the following video.

Firmer footing for the series was arguably re-established over the next eight years, although the Driver title was last used for handheld and mobile releases. For comparison, the phenomenally successful Grand Theft Auto 5 has now reportedly sold over 75m copies.

But today’s focus is 2011’s Driver: San Francisco, a rather nice looking Playstation 3 title focused on fast paced car chases and out of body experiences that brought a seemingly supernatural bent to the traditionally crime-orientated Driver series.

The title allowed the player, following what appears to be a traumatic crash that has left them in a coma, to have an out of body experience where they can possess other drivers and gain control of their vehicle.

In a plot that almost touches on existentialist themes of reality and who we are, the function allowed players an in-game reason to Switch cars at great speed, without the complicated logistics and programming to actually get out of a vehicle and interact build with a world.  The series now appeared to fully be embracing its heritage as a car game, rather than the grand world building now associated with Grand Theft Auto.

There is no inherent reason why games shouldn’t evolve and introduce entirely new and unexpected mechanics to future titles. They are not reality after all.

Yet Driver’s adoption of a metaphysical game mechanic to change vehicles, rather than getting out and embracing and interacting with the game world beyond the dashboard, always felt like a cost saving move to limit programming requirements. In a way, clumsily patching over the limits of the game’s own design.

Think almost a debug mode used by developers suddenly being written into the game at some point in order to tell a plot about leaping into the bodies of others – a surprisingly common staple in games.

Of course, all games have to take shortcuts to try and simulate reality and hide the limitations of what programming will allow.

But sometimes clever development that gets around design limitations can be used to inform game design to create a world that feels real and immersive as a result of clever shortcuts.

Videogames may never ever really be able to fully recreate a real world human experience, even when they are capable of building interactive and complex fantasy and alien plans to play around in.

But canny developers, as they always have with beloved games, find a way to hide the strings of a game’s technical limitations to make you at least buy into and feel part of a world.

This may go to explain why some gamers will find a now 25 year-old 16-bit cyberpunk fantasy game such as Shadowrun to be so much more engaging then a more technically sophisticated modern title such as Watchdogs – a successor of sorts to Driver – that seeks to create a more fully realised living breathing city.

Very few of Shadowrun’s building can actually be entered or interacted with.  But it’s world building was sufficiently robust to feel as if the player was a character in this world – even with a fairly limited number of areas to explore.  It had nightlife, hirable goons, optional heists and even a transportation network.

18 years later, Driver San Fran didn’t even allow players to step out of their car – not in a traditional sense.

The value of any art will always be in the eye of the beholder and some gamers will no doubt have a great time flipping quickly from car to car in the world of Driver: San Francisco. But really, a videogame character in a coma having an out of body experience!

Much like the well worn cinema and TV trope of outlandish scenarios being written off as a dream, Driver San Francisco felt game breakingly cynical.

Less an attempt to realise gamer’s dreams of switching from one classic sports vehicle to another in the touch of a button and more a plot-mandated way to avoid having to design animation and gameplay for getting out of one vehicle and into another.

Games are often better for not trying to eschew real-world simulation and instead let us live out a very specific type of fantasy, even for a few hours. Technical, cost and time limitations have also helped creators and developers focus on core gameplay mechanics to build something involving and timeless, if not realistic.

In this regards, time is arguably yet to regard Driver: San Francisco as a classic of the genre.  But to some, maybe a rollicking car chase game is enough as an alternative, rather than rival to Grand Theft Auto.

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3 responses to “Driver: San Francisco – the ole ‘videogame hero in a coma’ trick

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